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The main concept: Is it beneficial for everyone to implant chips in our brains?
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The main concept: Is it beneficial for everyone to implant chips in our brains?

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Are we approaching a new era where brain disorders are eliminated and humans merge with artificial intelligence? This futuristic concept seems more attainable after Elon Musk’s announcement that Neuralink, his biotech company, has successfully implanted its technology into a human brain. However, is this type of mind-merging truly imminent? And is it something desirable?

Neuralink, founded in 2016, is a relative newcomer to the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). The core technology has been in existence for many years, and its principles are relatively simple. A BMI typically consists of probes, often thin wires, that are surgically inserted into specific areas of the brain. These probes monitor the activity of nearby neurons and transmit the gathered information to a computer. The computer then processes this data to perform a useful task, such as controlling a robot or a voice synthesizer. In some cases, BMIs can also stimulate neural activity through electrical impulses sent by the probes, potentially influencing our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

BMI technology is advancing quickly and for valid reasons. It holds potential for restoring movement in individuals with paralysis, restoring sight for the blind, and more. However, aside from medical uses, BMIs may also enhance cognitive abilities for some individuals. This area raises ethical concerns and the high level of media coverage on Neuralink can be attributed to Musk’s portrayal of a potential cyborg future.

The medical appeal of BMIs is relatively uncomplicated, and many advances have already been made. Human clinical trials date back to the 1990s – Neuralink was by no means the first – when a researcher at Georgia Tech called Phil Kennedy implanted a basic system into a patient with severe paralysis. After extensive training, this patient was able to control a computer cursor through focused thinking. (In 2005, exemplifying a certain Muskian zeal, Kennedy implanted a BMI into his own brain.)

In recent times, other groups of researchers have made significant advancements. In the previous year, scientists in Lausanne assisted a paralyzed individual to walk, while at Stanford, using a BMI, researchers enabled patients with motor neuron disease who were unable to speak to communicate through their thoughts. BMIs have also been utilized to control epileptic seizures and relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by precisely stimulating neural activity.

Although Neuralink has room for improvement, its impressive engineering skills could potentially expedite these sought-after medical uses. The advancement of precise surgical robotics for performing delicate implantations, the ability to increase bandwidth by scaling up the quantity and compactness of probes, and the utilization of vast computational power all have the potential to make a significant impact. The company’s initial objective is to restore mobility in individuals who are paralyzed, and it is conceivable that they will make swift advancements.

However, the development of BMI poses both scientific and engineering obstacles, and Musk’s usual aggressive engineering approach may not be easily applicable. Unlike electric vehicles and space exploration, the complexities of the human brain have yet to be fully understood and are not likely to be in the near future. Medical research must be conducted carefully and gradually to minimize harm to animal subjects and ensure human safety. No one wants a sudden and unexpected failure inside their own mind, as seen with one of Musk’s rockets in the recent past.

This brings us to the wider ethical issues raised by BMIs, and to the critical distinction between medical uses and cognitive enhancement. While most of us might agree that treating neurological disorders is a good thing, the ethics of the latter are far murkier.

First, there are questions of feasibility. Musk paints a picture of a future in which all of us may use implants to improve ourselves, going far beyond medical need. To “unlock human potential tomorrow”, as Neuralink’s website puts it. A quick trip to a high-street neurosurgeon, and bingo, you’re superintelligent.

What is the probability of this happening? The obstacles in the field of BMI research suggest that initial uses outside of medicine will likely be restricted to tasks like controlling applications on electronic devices. Are individuals truly willing to undergo voluntary brain surgery just to scroll through social media using their thoughts? Personally, I would not. I already have efficient means of interacting with the world through my hands and mouth. Creating a new opening in my skull seems unnecessary.

There are additional concerns regarding the desirability of this technology. One concern is that it may lead to a class of individuals with enhanced cognitive abilities, creating a societal hierarchy. While this is a valid concern, it is important to consider the feasibility of such a scenario. Another pressing concern is the potential for algorithmic bias, which is widely recognized in the field of AI but not yet adequately addressed. If BMI technology is trained on data from a limited portion of society, it may perpetuate the biases of that subset and lead to homogenous thinking. This could result in social biases being ingrained in our minds, potentially promoting a lack of diversity in thought.

In the future, there could be potential consequences if we allow companies and organizations to access our neural data. This type of personal information is incredibly intimate and valuable. Many of us have already sacrificed our privacy for convenience in various ways, but with the combination of BMI technology and AI, ethical concerns become even more significant. While remote mind reading may seem like a distant scientific possibility, there is a fear that it could lead to governments punishing individuals for their thoughts. The idea of remote mind control through neural stimulation is even more alarming. Although this scenario may be far off or even impossible, the potential consequences are existential. Losing autonomy over our own thoughts and conscious experiences could greatly impact what it means to be human. Despite any potential benefits, this is a steep price to pay.

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Perhaps it is my lack of creativity, but although I am genuinely enthusiastic about the potential medical advancements of neural implants, I prefer to explore less invasive methods of unlocking human potential. Additionally, we should carefully consider the consequences before connecting our brains directly to corporate servers – before it becomes too late.

Anil Seth is director of the Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, and the author of Being You (Faber).

Further reading

Augmented Human: How Technology Is Shaping the New Reality by Helen Papagiannis (O’Reilly, £24.97)

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett (Picador, £9.99)

Helen Thomson’s book, Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains, is available for £10.99 from John Murray.

Source: theguardian.com